Nearly every year this century, state Rep. Mary Murphy has brought forth a bill that would initiate funding and signal the return of commuter rail service between Duluth and Minneapolis.
And every year, she said Wednesday at the University of Minnesota Duluth, it’s gone nowhere.
During a field hearing of the state House of Representatives Transportation Finance and Policy Division, Murphy, DFL-Hermantown, gave another plea for funding during impassioned testimony about the importance of connecting communities.
“People want options; people need options,” she said, calling on her colleagues to "seize the moment" and start funding Northern Lights Express passenger rail service proposed between the Duluth Depot and Target Field in Minneapolis with stops in between, including Superior.
“It’s not high speed, but 90 (mph) is better than 40,” Murphy added. “We can’t stand with the naysayers.”
Murphy and a host of others testified in the Kirby Ballroom, where about 15 state lawmakers heard testimony on her bill to fund $4 million for completion of engineering for Northern Lights Express.
The money would be a major step toward unlocking future state and federal dollars on the proposed $550 million rail service. Testimony throughout the hearing indicated that, if ever approved, state and federal governments would split the cost on a 40-60 basis, respectively. Given funding, the rail service could be operational in less than three years.
"Economically and culturally, this train would bring us closer together," Superior Mayor Jim Paine said during testimony.
The hearing was cordial and attracted more than 75 members to the audience, including several local politicians. Those who testified said younger generations offer willing passengers for the way they are choosing alternatives to driving.
“We’re seeing a real cultural shift among younger generations who support a sharing economy,” Rep. Jen Schultz, DFL-Duluth, testified. “It’s going to leave Duluth and Superior behind if we don’t fund this passenger rail route.”
Rep. Liz Olson, DFL-Duluth, testified on behalf of her own related bill to fund necessary improvements to the Grassy Point swing bridge which carries freight trains between between Duluth and Superior and would be used along the NLX route.
Even without NLX, "it needs to have equipment updated and restored," Olson said, citing a recent three-week outage at the bridge.
Witnesses with the Northern Lights Express Alliance, which has organized the effort to date, said the rail line is planned, shovel-ready and has ready partners in Amtrak to deliver the service and BNSF to use its rail lines.
The current project would include four round-trips daily with tickets estimated between $30-38 one way.
Ken Buehler, of the Alliance and local director of the Depot's train museum and scenic railroad, said rail service eliminated “windshield time” and that the estimated two-and-a-half hour ride would increase work productivity. He also noted that only rail service would have survived the post-Thanksgiving blizzard.
“Trains are slowed by weather,” he said, “but rarely stopped.”
Derek James, Amtrak’s senior manager of government affairs based in Chicago, described Amtrak as having carried a record 32.5 million passengers in 2019 along with record profits and investments.
“People will flock to frequent, on-time service,” James said.
Still, the commuter service would in all likelihood require an annual public, taxpayer subsidy — an issue that drew questions from lawmakers.
In the end, Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, who chairs the committee, noted that all forms of public transit, including roads, buses and air travel, require public subsidies.
Duluth resident Diane Saunders was among those who provided public testimony. She wrote in to say she was opposed to the rail service, calling it too slow and reliant on old technology, including diesel locomotives.
“This will not be a high-speed rail project,” Saunders wrote. “This is a ‘build something rather than nothing’ kind of project.”
The field hearing included no votes or decisions made.
Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Margaret Anderson Kelliher was on hand and said NLX would be “highly utilized.” Regarding funding for it and all MnDOT projects, she thanked the lawmakers for past funds, but added that current budgets are too light for transportation’s sake.
“It is not enough for what the plans are and what the needs are across the state,” she said.